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Seeing this, I thought the Onion or Scrappleface had bought space on the ABC’s site.  I’d imagine Gareth would be miffed.

When Obama gets around to moving past the ‘offering hope’ phase and into the change, he could start here and here.

There’s an interesting piece in the Washington Post about the increaasing number of womem in US national security policy

MIT’s Technology Review reports a prediction by Didier Sornette and colleagues (Bastiaensen, Cauwels et al. 2009) that a Chinese stock market collapse is imminent–due before 27 July, in fact.

Crashes in stock markets represent cases of self-organised criticality (see, for example, Turcotte 1999): like avalanches, pressure builds in the system to the point where overloading triggers a collapse.  We cannot predict exactly when a collapse will occur, where, or how large the collapse will be, but collapses are inevitable–and sometimes small collapses trigger much larger cascades.  The behaviour of such systems over time follows a scale law: large collapses are few; small collapses are many.

Examples of self-organised criticality can be found in a wide range of natural and social systems, including finance and war (Turcotte and Rundle 2002).  Can we apply the same ideas to nuclear proliferation?

For example, we can substitute the idea of nuclear latency–the level of capability that would allow a swift transition to nuclear status, including through indigenous civilian programs–for load.  (The analogous component in other systems would be combustible material for forest fires, tectonic stress for earthquakes, and over-investment in financial systems.)    The load builds to a point where breakout is inevitable.   But the characteristics of criticality apply: we don’t know when, or where, such a breakout will occur, or how large the ‘avalanche’ will be–one or two nations, for example, or a cascade of proliferation.

What triggers collapse in such a system?  It cannot be capability alone.  But proliferation comprises a combination of material, expertise, infrastructure and intent.  As underlying capability–material, infrastructure and expertise–grows, then intent becomes increasingly important in assessing proliferation risks and behaviour.

And intent necessarily becomes a function of expectation: what are the expected consequences; and what are actors’ expectations of each other?   As in the market, we lack perfect information.  The differences between intent, expectation and surety generate instabilities, which as the load increases and system stress increases, increase the likelihood of collapse.

Moreover, the longer stresses in the system build, the more likely the collapse will be large, cascading as nations with high latency succumb to pressure generated by uncertainties of over others’ intent.

Can we adopt Sornette’s ideas for predicting collapse?  Sornette looks for bubbles in market data; no similar information is available–as far as I’m aware–on nuclear material, industry, or skills.  It’s not exactly the most open of industries–and even more so where there is a covert intent to proliferate.  And even in market data, finding bubble-like behaviour does not necessarily translate into collapses.

But then, Sornette et al do not rely on data alone, but seek to find drivers of such behaviour.  From the Technology Review piece again:

The telltale sign of a bubble, he says, is a faster than exponential growth rate caused by a positive feedback mechanism that generates this nonlinear growth.

Within nuclear proliferation, such drivers include

  • protective hedging against Western conventional dominance, and increasingly, against regional competitors; and
  • increased means of gaining the material, expertise and equipment needed for proliferation, including through sub-national means such as the AQ Khan network.

From a systems perspective there exist drivers trending towards proliferation. Taking the pressure out of the system requires adjusting or defusing the drivers, such as increased transparency of programs; redirecting intent, such as through cooperative security and international regimes; or some sort of as yet unknown technological solution.  The international community has tried a number of these, but given the increasing latency, new and different means may be needed: the barriers suitable for small avalanches, for example, are unlikely to be able to hold back large avalanches.  And therein lies a further problem for the international community: the more the system is held back, and pressure/latency allowed to build rather than being diffused or bled out, the greater the likelihood of a large, cascading breakout.


Bastiaensen, K., P. Cauwels, et al. (2009). “The Chinese Equity Bubble: Ready to Burst.” arXiv: 0907.1827.

Turcotte, D. L. (1999). “Self-organized criticality.” Reports on Progress in Physics 62(10): 1377-1429.

Turcotte, D. L. and J. B. Rundle (2002). “Self-organized complexity in the physical, biological, and social sciences.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99: 2463-2465.

The New York Times reported a couple of days ago that:

While Mr. Obama was in the Middle East and Europe last week, several senior officials said the president’s national security team had all but set aside the central assumption that guided American policy toward North Korea over the past 16 years and two presidencies: that the North would be willing to ultimately abandon its small arsenal of nuclear weapons in return for some combination of oil, nuclear power plants, money, food and guarantees that the United States would not topple its government, the world’s last Stalinesque regime.

Now, after examining the still-inconclusive evidence about the results of North Korea’s second nuclear test, the administration has come to different conclusions: that Pyonyang’s top priority is to be recognized as a nuclear state, that it is unwilling to bargain away its weapons and that it sees tests as a way to help sell its nuclear technology.

So far, options and next steps that are being suggested or discussed publicly are of the logical diplomatic variety: a linear stepping up of pressure, via sanctions and interdiction, discussions amongst the the remaining five (the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia), engagement with North Korea–or not

But North Korea clearly has no interest in playing along.  Silence, at worst, would be greeted with further petulance–remember, North Korea now sees itself as a fully-fledged member of the nuclear club, not to be casually dismissed–unnerving South Korea and Japan.  At best—if it can be seen as best—silence and other diplomatic compromises tacitly enable North Korea to continue to trade its nuclear wares unmolested.  And North Korea has stated that interdiction of that trade would be regarded as a declaration of war.

There are no ‘good’ options left, only a series of worse options: there are fewer returns and increasing risk in continuing to trade away action for time.   

That leaves some form of direct action.  We have to ask what a use of force would have to achieve to be effective.

The first main concern is eliminating the nuclear bargaining chip–and in doing so, sending messages to other nuclear wannabes (Iran).  That means the North Korean nuclear capabilities would be targetted: the reprocessing plant, the fuel fabrication plant, the reactor.  A key challenge will be securing the weapons-grade material. 

The second main concern is the need to continue to balance the relationships in North China.  Japan and South Korea would need to be reassured, while China and Russia would have to be comfortable that they were not threatened. 

The third key element is regime survival.  Kim Jong-Il would have to understand that any retaliation would trigger another Korean war and that a war would result in the inevitable end of his regime, with little or no prospect of his son’s succession.  If reports are correct, his succession plans suggest regime survival is a high priority. Moreover, regime survival is needed to ensure that refugees do not swamp China and South Korea, and that the Peninsula remains divided.

One scenario may involve President Obama calling Kim Jong-Il advising him he has six hours to evacuate key nuclear facilities before the cruise missile strikes, and warning him of the consequences of retaliation.  Getting all parties on board will be hard, however.  Past patterns of response are terribly familiar, even comfortable: outrage, a determination to do something, hesitation, and delay.  It’s a response that avoids not over-pressuring the unstable multipolar balance in North Asia.  

There are many differences between the current and past provocations by North Korea.  Not least amongst those is that in the past North Korea seemed content to gain from exploiting divisions within the region, and between its neighbours and the United States, but now North Korea seems determined to destabilise the status quo, a carefully negotiated and understood balance of power on the Peninsula and within the region.


Lyon, R. (2009). North Korea: the reverberations of 25 May. Policy Analysis. Canberra, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Some states—particularly Japan and South Korea—are looking decidedly edgy.  Nor are the markets impressed.

It’s easy to be mired in the thickets of contention and the hedges of counter-contention in the recently released Defence White Paper.  But this judgment in WP2009 is looking a tad more shaky after today’s nuclear test by North Koreaand firing of short-range missiles:

While currently unlikely, a transformation of major power relations in the Asia-Pacific region would have a profound effect on our strategic circumstances. (3.17, p28)

We currently have a belligerent weak state challenging the carefully managed status quo between major powers in North Asia.  North Korea’s actions may not quite be transformational, yet.  But it does look determined to be.

Given such ratcheting up of strategic pressure, does the government propose to revise its posture and force development plans, perhaps bringing projects forward…? 

It is unlikely that contingencies involving major power adversaries could arise in the foreseeable future without a degree of strategic warning. As discussed in Chapter 3 and in more detail in Chapter 10, in the light of such strategic warning, we might have to adjust our strategic posture and force development plans. (8.48, p65)

And strategic warning constitutes…what, if not a nuclear test in North Korea and a couple of missiles tossed across the bows of one of our allies?  


Defence (2009). Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030. Canberra.

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